Management By the Leadership Book

By Kris Dunn | Work in Progress


et me start this column by making a disclaimer. I’m not anti-leadership book, and I’m not anti-personal development. There’s a real need for all of us to look for ways to get better at what we do professionally.

I believe enough in leadership/management skills that I actually created a training series for managers of people called the BOSS Series. What I learned in developing that series was to focus on the most important conversations managers have with their direct reports with the key being they deliver any tool in their own authentic voice.

Install leadership techniques with a healthy dose of pragmatic management and you’ll never be accused of being a robot.

So, I’m a believer in the need to get better as a leader-manager of people. As it turns out, the appetite of leaders-managers to get better at their craft can be broken down into the following groups:

Laggards: Not super interested in putting the time and effort toward being better leaders.

Fast followers: Good people who want to do good things. They’re too busy to chase it on their own, but if you provide the right training and development environment, you’ll get ROI on your investment because they’ll try to internalize the program and attempt to put new skills to use in the field.

Naturals: You don’t even have to do anything. These leaders have the natural DNA, and they’re already soaking things up from the world around them to become better leaders — they’re reading, tweaking their approach and learning as they go. This accounts for 5 percent of your manager population in my experience.

Enthusiastic robots: This leader doesn’t have the innate leadership gene of the natural, but they see the need and want to do great things — which is where the problem begins.

That last group often deploys what I’ll call “Management by Best-Selling Leadership Book.” The robot wants to be a top-tier leader, so much so that they consume many best-sellers on leadership and then the following happens:

They try to install techniques they read about in the aforementioned books without consideration to their personal style, the needs of their team or the existing company culture.

They reference the technique in the book, which has the unfortunate outcome of telling their team they’re doing a hard install of the technique in question.

They do multiple installs in a given year, which gives the team they manage the sense that the ideas aren’t their own, and they install techniques without much consideration of what actually works best for the team.

They love what they read so much that they actually order copies of the book for their team. “The boss gave us ‘The Five Dysfunctions of Teams’! That means I’m dysfunctional, right?” If you order a book a year for your team without much discussion with them of what they actually want or need, you might be the robot (said in classic Jeff Foxworthy voice and cadence).

The robot isn’t a bad person. They have simply taken a mechanical approach to leadership and failed to customize the technique they first hear of in a book to their personal management style.

Over time, their direct reports grow weary of the approach, which can cause the leaders to look unauthentic and worse yet, have the team snickering behind their back because of it.

The irony is that at least half of the robots in question don’t need the crutch. They’re good enough to survive and thrive on their own merits.

If you’ve recently read a best-seller on leadership and you’re thinking about doing an install of some of the things you’ve learned, here’s some advice. Talk to the team about what you’ve read, but take a balanced feedback approach. Tell them what you loved, but contrast what you thought was BS.

Then install what you want to install (new 1-1 format, etc.), but make sure you go back to the team and get feedback about what they think. From there, adjust accordingly and make tweaks quickly.

Install leadership techniques with a healthy dose of pragmatic management and you’ll never be accused of being a robot.

Or just give your team the book you just read with the quote, “I loved this and can’t wait for us to do this,” and watch them glance at each other while you talk.

If you’ve given your team a book this year, don’t fret. Remember, I said half the people who give books don’t need the crutch. You’re probably in that half.

The world will be run by robots soon enough. Don’t force your team to endure one they don’t want (you) before it’s mandatory.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor. To comment, email